David Walsh is the chief sportswriter for the Sunday Times of London and the author of LA Confidential (with Pierre Ballesters) and From Lance to Landis, two feats of investigative journalism that connect the dots on doping by Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis. I rang up Mr. Walsh to talk about his and Mr. Ballesters’ new book le sale tour, and we had a wide ranging conversation about the state of professional cycling and the cycling media, and of course, Lance Armstrong.
Andy Shen: Tell me about the new book.
David Walsh: Well, it’s out now, it’s called "le sale tour", the dirty tour, but we had to make sure that it’s not in capitals, because the name of the book is based on a French expression. Le sale tour is the bad tour, a bad experience, bad, not necessarily, literally referring to the Tour de France, but obviously that’s how many people will interpret it.
What we’ve done in the book is basically look at the way cycling is now operating, and the influence Lance Armstrong is able to achieve within the operation of the sport. Pierre and I believe Armstrong’s influence is very significant.
AS: Is this in regards to Clerc being pushed out of the ASO?
DW: Yes, a big change has happened in the ASO where they went from being the organization that was leading, right at the forefront of the anti-doping movement in professional cycling to, in our opinion, an organization that has accepted that doping is an integral part of the sport, and by highlighting the problem, you only damage the commercial viability of the sport. They’ve taken a cynical view, they were hurting their bottom line by focusing so much attention on the doping problem. Changes were made, and people who were leading that charge were ousted. The ASO is taking a much more pragmatic view now, of how to run the Tour de France.
AS: Is it the Amaury family that’s behind this?
DW: Yes. They got into discussions with the UCI, and the outcome of that just wasn’t good, in our opinion, for the anti-doping movement.
AS: So do you believe the UCI is actually working counter to the anti-doping movement?
DW: Well, in certain respects it wants to be seen as being right at the front of it, with the whole biological passport stuff. And some of that is very good, although it hasn’t produced any results yet. But in relation to having the Tour de France scandalized by doping stories, I think the UCI is at one with the ASO now, in that they both believe it is very bad for the sport to have major doping controversies like we’ve had over the last number of years, and they’ve decided that at whatever cost, that’s not going to continue.
I don’t believe that this year’s Tour, or next year’s Tour, or the Tour after that, we’ll be finding big guys positive. I just don’t believe it’ll be happening.
AS: I saw a blog posting on cyclingfans.com which neatly summarized all the negative viewpoints of you and Pierre, so let me just for a moment play devil’s advocate and ask you some questions in that vein.
Why can’t you just let this all go and move on? Why are you always after Lance Armstrong?
DW: Because it matters. Because it’s important. Why should I let it go? Why should I? I only speak for myself here, ’cause Pierre can answer his questions, but my attitude is, "I still have a view on this, I feel my view is valid, I don’t see any reason for letting it go, ’cause Lance is still around."
We’re going into a Tour de France now and he’s a serious contender for the Tour, and my feeling was as soon as he came back, "Hold on, before we jump into this comeback, Lance, there’s a few other issues we need to clear up about your past." You come back, and the first thing you say, virtually, is "I’m going to be transparent". Anyone who believes that Lance has been transparent, and the implication was he was willing to answer all questions, well that just hasn’t happened. Nothing about his past has been discussed, that has not been entered into dialogue about, all the allegations remain, as far as Lance is concern, are buried in the past. And for me they shouldn’t be.
Because we have to know if the guy who won the Tour de France seven times is a genuine champion or not. Because in my view, if he doped to win the Tour de France, which I believe he did, he’s not a genuine champion. And other people will say, "Oh well, most of the other guys who rode those Tours were doping, so therefore he was the best." Well, I don’t subscribe to that view. My view is that there were plenty of people who rode those Tours clean who were absolutely screwed by the system, and if we don’t stand up for those people we shouldn’t be in the jobs we’re in.
AS: They also say it’s time for the Tour, so obviously it’s time for another book by you guys. It’s just another…you’ll never stop as long as there’s money to be made by tearing down the sport.
DW: Well, (laughs) I would love if we’d been able to tear down the sport, because the sport needed to be torn down. When I talk about the sport, I’m just talking about professional cycling. It NEEDED to be torn down. And sadly, there weren’t too many people out there with journalistic responsibilities who were prepared to do it.
As for the money making bit, I’ve made virtually nothing from all of this, I’m sure if you spoke to my accountant I’m sure he’d tell you it’s actually cost me money. The money doesn’t interest me, never has it interested me. Andy, you’re talking to me now in a South African hotel, we’re speaking on my mobile phone because there isn’t a phone in my room. I don’t care about that stuff, I never have. I don’t fly business class, I don’t wish to fly business class. I don’t have an expense account, I don’t wish to have an expense account. So money has always been a complete irrelevance for me here. And this book, it will have cost us as much to do it as we will earn from it. So what. That’s not what it’s about.
And the people who say that make me laugh, because we are investigating people who might well be committing fraud to earn millions of dollars, and we operate at the very least in the few thousand dollars, and we’re the ones who are considered the mercenaries. How absurd is that?
AS: You’re in South Africa to cover rugby, is that correct.
AS: Part of this blog post also says that Pierre’s favorite sport is rugby, and it says that in rugby dope testing is virtually non-existent. Is it hypocritical for you guys to follow rugby yet tear down cycling?
DW: That actually isn’t true, that dope testing is non-existent in rugby. Dope testing could be better in rugby, but it is very existent. There is no rugby of any consequence where there isn’t post match testing. You’re talking about two people from each team, and each team is comprised of fifteen people. So proportionally you have a high chance of being dope tested after a rugby match.
In Britain, for example, the UK sports council that supervises the dope testing in the UK where I work, they send their dope testers to all the rugby clubs for out of competition testing, and the rugby clubs have totally subscribed to that. So it’s absolutely wrong to say testing in rugby is non-existent. That isn’t to say there aren’t people cheating, of course there are, in the same way that I would have no hesitation in addressing that…I’ve written loads of doping stuff about rugby, I’ve written loads of doping stuff about athletics, I’ve written loads of doping stuff about swimming. Cycling is just one other sport, although you’d have to say one that has a very particular and very hard to eradicate problem.
AS: Ok, I’m going to stop being devil’s advocate and go back to being myself.
DW: I’m sorry if I sound antagonistic, I’m not. But I’m just defending myself, I believe in what I do.
AS: I just thought this posting was a good crystallization of a lot of what I see on forums when people complain about you guys.
DW: Sure. People genuinely believe this. But this argument, to say that rugby is Pierre’s favorite sport, is ridiculous. This guy started out in life as the best cycling writer in l’Equipe. In 1999 when Lance won his first Tour, Pierre was The Man. When l’Equipe was sending someone to interview Lance in Texas, I think it was 1997 during his year out in cancer rehab, l’Equipe sent Pierre, because he was their best cycling guy. He was the guy who would write the most engaging piece. He loved the sport.
He then saw how corrupt it was in 1998, and he said to his bosses at l’Equipe "I will only cover this sport now if you allow me to cover doping in this sport. Because until I believe these guys are riding in some way that’s fair, starting from the same line, all of them, there’s no point in writing about the results. Because they mean NOTHING."
And l’Equipe says, "Yeah, Pierre, we think that’s right, because doping is a scourge in the sport. Do it." Of course, Pierre, being Pierre, did it so well that a lot of the riders were refusing to talk to him. And to put pressure on the newspaper, a lot of the riders said they wouldn’t speak to Pierre’s colleagues who didn’t give a damn about doping. Those guys went to Pierre’s bosses and said, "Look, we can’t do our job because this guy is always writing about doping."
And l’Equipe found itself in a very difficult position, because most of their cycling coverage wasn’t doping. All of Pierre’s writing was on doping, but they write 40 pages about cycling, there might be one piece about doping. So they had a problem. They felt that their coverage was being undermined by Pierre’s reputation as the guy who always asked about doping, so they tried to silence Pierre. Pierre went to l’Equipe, and said, "The guys who complained about me asking about doping, have engaged in pot belge parties WITH RIDERS. And you listen to their complaints."
And of course l’Equipe freaked when Pierre talked about their journalists who were engaged in pot belge parties. But it was true. And in the end Pierre was in a situation where they basically wanted to get rid of him on this basis, he had the usual responsibilites of mortgage, having to get a job, and basically l’Equipe came to a good financial settlement with Pierre, to ease him out provided Pierre wouldn’t talk too freely about his colleagues. Pierre needed to live, so that’s how Pierre ended his time with l’Equipe.
It was a story that told you that ultimately, people whose guiding principle is the bottom line will always do what’s best for the bottom line. The ASO have reacted in the same way. My view is that when the chips are down, and we’re talking about the big stakes, the UCI will always act the same. It will protect the interests of cycling. What I mean when I say that is they’ll protect the commercial interests of cycling.
AS: What else is in the book regarding the corruption of the sport?
DW: I can speak maybe more clearly about the stuff I was involved in. I looked at the LAF foundation, and how Lance has used cancer as a shield, in a sense, to protect him. I think he’s done it very effectively, that’s not to say that a lot of good hasn’t come from the work of the LAF foundation. It has. The funding of survivorship programs has been very impressive. But it’s also served a very important purpose for Lance in that in 1999 or whenever, when the first serious allegations came along, Lance’s reply was, "After what I’ve been through, do you think I would use performance enhancing drugs? That I would put stuff like that in my body? After what I’ve been through?"
And to the lay person, it sounded like an incredibly convincing argument. But of course, the drugs that helped him to rehabilitate after his chemotherapy were drugs like EPO, anabolic steroids, and according to the doctors they weren’t going to do any lasting damage, so it was ridiculous to suggest that the drugs you might take to enhance cycling performance were drugs that would seriously damage your system or your health in the short term. They weren’t. They were the very drugs that helped him recover from his chemotherapy.
But that was the argument from day one. After what I’ve been through, would I do it? And after that, it was more subliminal. Somebody who was such an icon to the cancer community would surely never cheat. And I think that’s been a huge part of the armory. I think it has worked very well as a shield. It means that the American media, for example, had a fantastic story about Lance Armstrong, because in his own country he was seen as a tremendous beacon of hope, a guy who came back from life threatening cancer. A guy who then decided that he would acknowledge the responsiblity of the cure, and do all this work for cancer. Which he did, and I don’t deny a lot of great work was done.
But it wasn’t just that. This also served a very useful purpose in relation to the image of Lance Armstrong. It protected him, and I’ve written about that. And there are some interesting points that have come up in that. I don’t understand how you could have the LAF foundation, and then livestrong.org, both non-profit organizations, and they build up a tremendous following, and people believe and associate with the Livestrong brand. And then you get the creation of livestrong.com, which is a for profit organization. I don’t understand how not for profit becomes for profit under the same brand. People tell me it happens in lots of charities in the US, and I’m sure it happens elsewhere as well, but I don’t understand it.
My feeling is that if somebody goes to their computer and types in www.livestrong.com, they think they’re on a charity website. And there is nothing when you type that in that says pretty clearly to them from the first moment they’re there, this is a for profit operation. They aren’t told that, and to me that’s strange. And livestrong.com is obviously owned by a very big multimedia company, Demand Media, it’s worth a lot of money, we’re talking billions here. And Lance is an equity holder in that company. So I think…cancer has served in many ways, and he has served the cancer community in many ways, but it’s been a mutally beneficial relationship.
AS: You started covering Lance Armstrong, and you quite liked him, when he was young and brash, in his first tour, correct?
DW: Yes I did, 1993. The interview is kind of tattooed onto my consciousness. I was writing a book on the Tour de France, a book that I wanted to write as a Canterbury Tales version of the Tour de France. On each stage I would sit down with somebody and they would tell me their story of the Tour. That person had to represent some element of the Tour that I felt was important – a sprinter, a climber, an old champion, an old journalist who’d covered them all… I wanted to interview for the very first chapter a rookie, a guy riding the race for the first time.
I picked Lance as the guy I’d like to interview. Didn’t know him from Adam, knew he was a young talented American cyclist who was expected to do well in the sport, not necessarily the Tour de France, but to do well in the sport. And I interviewed him, and the interview lasted three hours. And I did like him, I think we got on pretty well, he gave me his mom’s number and I rang his mom and made follow up calls to other people, and I think the piece reflected very well on him. It was what you would call a positive piece.
But it’s funny, I’ve been back a few times and I’ve re-read that piece, and unwittingly almost, I said things about him then that turned out to be absolutely true, and I think stuff that in the end were quite destructive. I do believe that he had an insatiable desire to win, that comes across very much in the piece. And I think when he realized that he couldn’t win in this sport as it was, by the mid 90’s, before he got his cancer in late ’96, he realized that he couldn’t do it without a serious doping program, hence the decision to go to Michele Ferrari in late ’95.
But it was that desire, a guy who just couldn’t accept losing, when he felt that the odds were unfairly stacked against him. And in everthing I’ve ever written about Lance, that’s how I always explained it. It wasn’t that he was a bad guy, it was that he was a guy who wasn’t prepared to accept not starting on the same line as everybody else. When I say everybody else I mean the people who are winning, there’s always been people who didn’t dope. Always. And I think always will be. It’s just that you never see them on the podiums.
But I think in terms of the people who were winning big at that time, they were cheating, and Lance decided that, as Stephen Swart, his teammate in ’94 and ’95, the expression Lance used was "Step up to the plate", and everybody knew exactly what he meant. He didn’t mean more training, because they were all training very hard.
So yes I did like him that day I met him, I did a subsequent interview with him, we met twice in that Tour, he gave me loads of time. He wasn’t in such demand, obviously, as he would be now. I remember on a rest day in Geneva we spent about three, three and half hours talking, and I had a very positive attitude towards him.
AS: Is the piece available anywhere?
DW: Yes it is. It’s in the book I wrote, I’m sure it’s on the internet, you can buy it on Amazon second hand. The book is called "Inside the Tour de France". There are elements of the book with which I’m quite pleased. The chapter on Lance is Ok, but there’s an interview with an old journalist, Harry Van Den Bremt, and if you go and read that, if you have any journalistic blood in your body you’d find it terribly interesting because Harry was one of these guys who’s covered the sport for years, and he actually knew the doping was going on, and he just had – and this isn’t even written, it’s maybe implied – he just had a way of avoiding the subject…he didn’t believe it was clean and he didn’t do a thing about it because there was no point.
And I understood why he felt there was no point, because in Harry’s day there was no Festina scandal. There was nothing that said to the public, you know, these guys are all juiced! But once Festina happened, everything changed. Because if we were to write, as some people tried to, that this was just one team, this was the bad guys getting caught by the cops, you were telling a lie. If you didn’t address the doping issue seriously after 1998 you were just the most willfully dishonest journalist who ever lived.
And sadly, there were plenty of them.
AS: Is le sale tour going to be published in English?
DW: I would hope so, but I would presume not. If Pierre heard me say that now he would die, I’m sure. I think the French are interested in the intrigue, and that’s why it’s possible to do it in France. There would be plenty of English publishers who would do it if they could be guaranteed that they weren’t going to be sued. And the one thing that I have found over the last few years is that assurances from David Walsh that they won’t be sued just don’t hack it. They don’t cut the ice.
Because Lance has a reputation out there for being very litigious. That makes it more trouble than it’s worth. The Sunday Times spent a lot of time defending against this guy and although it never went to court, it still lost a lot of money, that’s absolutely true. But I’m of the view now that Lance is not going to bother to sue ever again, because he knows he’s never going to willingly go into a court of law and have this thrashed out.
But the publishing company says, well, that’s alright, maybe he won’t, but if we get involved in any kind of lawsuit whatever profit we might get from the book is going to be eaten up very quickly, and we’re suddenly going to be going into loss. And my earlier point about corporations, their only line is the bottom line, and publishers are part of the corporate world.
AS: When LA Confidential and subsequently From Lance to Landis came out, you really didn’t get any traction in the American media, did you?
DW: None. None. I did maybe forty interviews in small radio stations, for which I was really glad to do. PBS, Tom Goldman did a really good interview. It was amazing to see that, ’cause as soon as we did that interview with Tom Goldman sales of the book shot up. It just shows you that if we got any mainstream coverage of the book it would’ve sold really well.
But the mainstream just did not want to know. Did not want to know. And I would’ve thought, sadly because (and I would say this), I thought From Lance to Landis was a really good book. I’m very proud of the work I did to put that together. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years, and if you fast forward my life to the year when I’m 88 years of age, and I think I’m going to expire in the next 20 minutes, and someone said, "Looking back on the working part of your life, what pleases you most about what you did as a journalist?"
I think I would say From Lance to Landis. I think the story is well told, I think it’s utterly credible. I think it’s fair to everybody, Lance Armstrong included. And it is the truth.
AS: Let’s go back to the beginning for a second. I don’t know if it was in that first series of interviews, but you asked Lance about Tommy Simpson and he gave you a very interesting answer.
DW: Yes he did. That was an interview I did in 2001. Lance had said, "I know nothing of the history of the sport." And I think that largely was true.
So I said, "You’ve never heard of Tommy Simpson?" or words to that effect. "You must’ve heard of Tommy Simpson."
And he said, "I did, but Tommy Simpson never tested positive."
And I thought that was the weirdest answer. Because as everybody knows, Tommy Simpson was found with amphetamines when his autopsy was done, there were amphetamines in his system, amphetamines were found in his back pocket, and the medical view was that they had contributed to his death. Obviously amphetamines were banned at this time.
But Lance’s immediate thing was, he didn’t have a positive test. Which was true. But what does that tell us? To me, that answer…Bernard Hinault used to be asked about doping, and Bernard Hinault would always say, "I passed every test." He never said, "I have never used drugs."
Lance was a man for talking about how many tests he’s had and how many tests he’s passed. As opposed to saying, "I would never ever ever use a performance enhancing drug. Because I totally disagree with using them." You didn’t get that type of answer from a certain group of cyclists. Generally the ones who won the big races.
AS: When you found out about his connection with Ferrari, and you emailed him and Bill Stapleton with some questions, that’s also when you found out about how the PR machine worked, right?
DW: Yes, that was just so cynical, and I was such a bloody idiot when I look back. How naive was I. I discovered that Lance was going to Ferrari through an Italian police source, who was a very good man, subsequently died of cancer in his 40’s. Fulvio, really nice man. He sent me faxes showing me the times that Lance had been in the town of Ferrara, showing the hotels he’d been in, and how many times he stayed.
And in a relatively short period of time, the guy was visiting Ferrari for three or four days at a time, and maybe once every three or four months. So we’re talking about sixteen days over two years or something like that. And so I get all this information, and remember, Lance has produced his autobiography, it’s come out maybe a year before, and the name Michele Ferrari does not appear in this book. He had never publicly spoken about Ferrari, and so this is quite a big story, that he’s actually going. Because at this time Ferrari was being investigated for doping, shortly after he would be charged, sent to trial. So it was quite a big story.
But I wanted to give Lance the opportunity to respond to this. On Thursday afternoon I contacted Bill Stapleton, I said, "Bill, I’ve got some stuff, evidence that suggests Lance has been visiting Michele Ferrari, the notorious Italian doctor."
And Bill said, "Would you mind sending us what information you’ve got, and we will respond then."
So I sent off an email, "These are the names of the hotels, these are the dates that Lance was there." I heard nothing from Stapleton, sent another email, still no response, and according to Pierre Bergonzi, La Gazzetta dello Sport journalist who interviewed Lance the following day (I contacted Bill Stapleton on Thursday, Bergonzi interviewed Lance on Friday), and according to Pierre Bergonzi, at the end of the interview, Lance said to him, "You haven’t asked me about Michele Ferrari."
And Bergonzi kinda said, "Why would I ask you about Ferrrari?"
And Lance said, "He and I are now working together, because we’re going to make an attack on the world hour record." And that was front page story on the following day’s La Gazzetta dello Sport. It was Lance and Stapleton’s way of spiking, of undermining my story, making sure that the Sunday Times wasn’t going to be the first newspaper to mention the connection…they had gotten their explanation in before the story had appeared. It was all about a unique collaboration to make an attack on the world hour record.
And in fairness to the journalists, I’ve often been critical about how they’ve covered Lance and cycling in general, pretty much every one of them called that story for what it was: an attempt by Armstrong to deflect attention from the story that would appear the following day. They laughed at the idea that he was going to do the world hour record. Nobody expected that to happen, and of course it didn’t.
And I should say, when we talk about doping and Lance, and this is the thing I will always remember, maybe as much as anything, on the day that he made ‘brilliant’ ride up Sestriere in the ’99 Tour, the journalists in the press room, the majority of them, were laughing cynically. They thought this was the greatest joke. This guy, riding up this mountain, at this speed? With this apparent effortlessness, in The Tour of Renewal? In the Tour post Festina, when they were all riding clean?
All the journalists laughed, because they saw how ridiculous it was. We knew what EPO had done to the sport, guys riding up mountains at flat-road speed without hardly taking a breath. So pretty much all of the journalists believed Lance was using EPO at that moment. But by the time they came to write at the end of the Tour, they’d all been persuaded by their editors back at their offices, that this was a great story. This was the cancer icon coming back to give everybody hope. And the response that the journalists got when they spoke to their editors was utterly and totally connected to Lance as cancer icon and how this was a story of true heroism. So the cynicism was put to one side, and the belief that this wasn’t true was suspended. And pretty much everybody went with the heroics.
I shouldn’t say pretty much everybody. There were some good journalists in France, people like Benoit Hopquin who didn’t go with it at Le Monde. He fought the good fight for about a year, believed it was utterly futile, and left the coverage of cycling to do other things. And there were other very good journalists in France who decided the game just wasn’t worth the candle…and good journalists in Europe as well, just opted out. Didn’t want to be part of this circus any more. Pierre Ballester was one of the guys who stayed and tried to fight it from the inside.
AS: That was one of my questions. Here in the US, a lot of us, including me, really didn’t suspect right away. I know you suspected right away, it’s interesting to hear you say it was widespread, it wasn’t just you.
DW: Oh no, it was totally widespread. That moment in Sestriere, I mean, the guys all knew it. The laughter in the press room, it was…it was bizarre. I have a great memory of, I think it was ’92, or ’93, when Miguel Indurain and Claudio Chiapucci had a fantastic battle on Sestriere, where Chiapucci had been away all day. Indurain was perceived to be this monster reeling in the breakaways, was reeling them in one by one, and he came up to Chiapucci, and everybody then expected that Indurain would just blow him away. This was quite close to the top, maybe 5k from the top. But Chiapucci suddenly got this new energy, and kept going, and as far as I remember, won the stage.
And if you believe what you were watching, and in those days, because this was the early 90’s, we all believed. There were lots of guys in tears, journalists in tears, watching this heroic duel between Chiapucci and Indurain.
Now, we subsequently learn that Chiapucci and his Carrera team were up to their eyes in doping, and the Banesto team of Indurain, loads of evidence to suggest there was systematic doping there as well. And I certainly don’t believe that either of those guys were riding without EPO. But at the time we didn’t know that, and it was a fascinating duel, as good as you would see in the Tour de France.
Now, fast forward seven or eight years to Lance, and Lance is producing this extraordinary power up Sestriere, and people were just laughing. We knew too much now, and we knew this wasn’t right. And I thought, it’s going to be really good now, ’cause all the journalists are going to say, ‘Sorry, this isn’t for real’.
L’Equipe, to their credit, were saying it. This is cycling at two speeds, was their quote, deux vitesse, was their headline. Cycling at two speeds, the doped and the clean, becase there were plenty of clean people at the ’99 Tour. In a story about Lance they put extra terrestrial in the headline, indicating that they didn’t believe.
And then an appalling thing happened in that ’99 Tour that gives you a sense of where the sport was coming from and where it is now. In l’Equipe, which is a hugely influential paper on the continent of Europe, l’Equipe didn’t believe Lance. It was absolutely clear in its coverage that Sestriere confirmed to them that he was definitely doping. And Pierre, their top guy, was asked to do their interview with Lance.
And Pierre to his great credit, in typical Pierre style, he asked all the right questions. Do you do EPO? Lance said no. Have you ever done EPO, even as part of your post cancer recuperation? And Lance said no. Taped interview, and he denied, because he’s feeling under pressure, he feels he must deny everything, even the stuff that wouldn’t hurt him to admit. Obviously he could’ve said, "Yes, I used EPO, as part of my post cancer treatment."
But Lance was thinking people might interpret that in some way negatively, so I’ll deny it. And he did deny it. But that interview is exactly what you’d want as a journalist. All the difficult questions were posed, Lance answered them. Some answers were convincing, some were not. The guy who ran the Tour de France at the time, Jean-Marie LeBlanc, flipped when he read the interview. He felt that the heir apparent of the Tour, Lance Armstrong, was being interrogated instead of being asked legitimate questions.
So he was obviously a former cycling correspondent of l’Equipe, so he organized a dinner. Now as head of the Tour de France, remember, he organized a dinner with Jean-Michel Rouet, the cycling editor of l’Equipe. Jean-Marie was saying to Rouet, "This has to stop. You’ve got to soften your approach to this. You can’t have this questioning, it’s damaging to the Tour."
And l’Equipe’s coverage in the last week of the race did change. They became more accepting of Lance’s right to be champion, and good journalism went out the window, the commercial interests of the Tour were being protected by the newspaper, which was part of the same group. It was unbearable, that pressure that was put on Jean-Michel, who’s a very good fellow. Again, a guy who covered a lot of cycling, who now doesn’t cover cycling. Because he too couldn’t bear the duplicity and the hypocrisy.
That was 1999, and l’Equipe being forced off the case, that was really bad for the sport. The bad guys were winning.
AS: We haven’t done the work that you have, but even for us, we hear "Why are you always on Armstrong’s case? There are other dopers. This proves that you have a personal grudge against Armstrong." But I think you believe there is something beyond doping. There’s control of the business, the system, he has more power.
For example, Ullrich has more or less confessed to doping, but to me he seems like a stooge, he was being controlled. Armstrong, he’s a different story, isn’t he?
DW: Yes he is. Completely different. Why do you go after Lance Armstrong? Ok, folks, who would you prefer? Cycling in the old days had a policy on this. The heads of the Tour de France and the heads of the UCI and all those guys, they did go after people. But they went after the small guys. And if they found a small guy, they generally presented him as the one bad apple in the box. And it was their way of saying, "Remember folks, only the small guys dope. Our great champions, they would never do that."
And a string of great champions down through the years were given passes by the cycling authorities. I think this is a point that would be apparent to anyone who read Paul Kimmage’s book Rough Ride.
Why do you go after Lance? Well, last time I checked he’s the guy who won seven Tours, and isn’t it important to know whether the greatest champion in the history of cycling is actually a great champion? If we don’t know that, what’s the point of going after anybody else? Pretty much everybody else, to their discredit, have been caught. Go after Tyler Hamilton? I don’t think so. I think that case is well and truly closed.
Go after Jan Ullrich? We know about Ullrich. Basso? We know about Basso. Bjarne Riis? We know about Bjarne Riis. I would love if somebody out there were to say, "You know what, I’m going to go back and look at Bernard Hinault and look at the Renault team, and I’m going to look at some of the old champions, and I’m going to write some interesting stuff about them." I think that would be a good idea.
But I think the Lance case, because remember, Lance was a guy who vigorously protests his innocence. Would have you believe that he never took a doping product in his life. Bernard Hinault was never like that. If you were to go through the archives of l’Equipe, perhaps in was in 2001, 2002, Bernard Hinault gave an interview to l’Equipe, and in answer to a question about doping he said he has no problem, and never had a problem, with riders who seek to correct hormonal imbalances in their systems.
That’s what he said, that’s his quote. In other words, if your testosterone gets very low because you’ve been riding the Tour de France, Bernard Hinault sees no moral difficulty in doing what is necessary to bring your testosteron level up to its normal balance. So that’s the kind of thing Hinault says, which for anybody who knows, you read between the lines you know exactly what he meant.
And Lance has never been like that. Lance has always been a Simon Pure who’s never touched any of this stuff. He once said he had a caffeine addiction because caffeine is now legal so you can do as much as you like, that’s why he took all those pills. He talked about it under oath in the SCA case. He was asked about all the pills that Frankie Andreu saw him display in front of him. And Lance said they were all caffeine pills. Convenient, caffeine is now legal. Up to a certain point.
To me, it’s a ridiculous argument, why are you going after Lance. In any case, my writing about doping has never been about Lance. Certainly in 1996-8 I wrote far more about Michelle Smith the swimmer than I ever wrote about Lance Armstrong. In 1988 I was writing long pieces about Ben Johnson. Whoever was the big cheat at the time, in my view needed to be investigated. It just happens that Lance has been around for a long time. Seven Tours is a lot.
AS: I have here in my notes, and I don’t remember why I made this note. Did Stephanie McIlvain confirm the hospital incident to you? (Stephanie McIlvain, Armstrong’s Oakley rep, was present during the ‘hospital incident’ where Armstrong allegedly told doctors about his use of performance enhancing drugs. McIlvain has testified that Armstrong said no such thing, contradicting the testimony of Frankie and Betsy Andreu.)
DW: She did. Absolutely plenty of times. And confirmed lots else besides. Because Stephanie and I spoke a lot, even though Stephanie would’ve said under oath she spoke very little to me. We spoke a lot. I found her, at the time I was speaking to her, I found her a very charming and engaging woman. We spoke on the phone, we never met in person, but she told me lots of stuff about Lance that was very damaging. She told me a story that involved John Korioth, a fridge, and EPO, and Lance, that I thought was very damning.
There was lots of stuff that Stephanie told me. She told me about a discussion she had with her boss, her Oakley boss, that was also quite incriminating. So there was lots of stuff Stephanie told me. And this was the thing, Andy. People would say, "What makes you so sure? Emma O’Reilly, it’s only her evidence."
But I heard lots of stuff that I believed, that I was able to use, that people were able to put their names on and say, "Yes, I’m telling you this, you can write it as I say it, I will stand up in court and I will repeat it." And they did under oath in the SCA case. People like Emma O’Reilly, and Betsy Andreu, Frankie Andreu, Stephen Swart, they all gave evidence in the SCA case. And not one of them at any time said, "What I was reported as saying in LA Confidential was a lie." Not one person said that.
When it came to Stephanie McIlvain, I heard lots of very interesting stuff from Stephanie that was off the record. This has been very tough on Stephanie, she went into that SCA case, she knew she had to give evidence, she said she never heard Lance reply to doctors that he used performance enhancing drugs in the famous hospital incident of October 1996. She said under oath, "I never heard it."
And then the famous taped telephone conversation with Greg Lemond is played a few days later in that hearing, and you hear Stephanie say, "I was there, I heard it. I’m not going to lie about it." So that’s a very traumatic experience for somebody to have such conflicting evidence presented under oath. And I think that was very tough on Stephanie no question. Her job was working for one of Lance’s sponsors, she needed to keep her job. I understand that. Anybody would understand that. And she was put in a pretty impossible position. But when you say under oath I never heard it and there’s a taped conversation that’s played a few days later that entirely contradicts your evidence, I wouldn’t like to be in that position.
AS: If this was a court of law, and you were the prosecutor, I’d guess that you’d have either won the case, or they would’ve rushed to settle. And yet, in the court of public opinion, especially here in the US, it seems your view hasn’t been accepted. I guess you’ve talked about it a bit, with the cancer foundation, but…
DW: Andy, there’s lots of good people in the US who’ve been covering the case and have done good work, there’s no doubt about that, but in general the American media have failed abysmally in relation to Lance Armstrong. Occasionally at golf tournaments I see Rick Reilly, and I get an urge, when I see Rick now, to just reach for the nearest sickbag. Because what that guy did with Sammy Sosa, and what he didn’t do with Lance Armstrong, was the most shocking case of journalistic duplicity that you’ll ever get.
Now, to his credit, he walked up to Sammy Sosa and said, "How ’bout you and me go down to the nearest lab, and you can give a sample, and in that way you can show your readiness to be tested and show your innocence?" And Sosa wouldn’t do it, and it looked appalling for Sosa. And I didn’t have any sympathy for Sosa. Some people would say it was a flash type of journalism, I don’t agree. I think Rick Reilly was entitled to do it, give the guy an opportunity to protest his innocence.
Now, Rick Reilly has written lots about Lance Armstrong. He’s described him as his friend. He’s talked about his son and Lance, and all that stuff. And yet, there’s vastly more evidence, in my view, against Lance than there ever was about Sammy Sosa. And yet Rick Reilly, as far as I’m concerned, has never asked Lance one serious question about doping that he’s written about. He’s never made any investigations, he’s never turned up at Lance’s door at an unsuspected day and said let’s go to the nearest testing center. Why?
Well, Lance is his mate. I mention Rick, because to me, it’s the great example of the general malaise. Lance has been given an incredible amount of latitude by an American media that just hasn’t seriously wanted to investigate him. I despair because this was the country that had Watergate, that had Woodward and Bernstein, that really showed us what really great journalism can do. And yet, it gets this guy Lance Armstrong, who’s crying out for investigation, and everybody seems unwilling to do it. I must say I find that very discouraging. It tells me something about the American media. I was its biggest fan, and I’m no longer its biggest fan.
Look at Sports Illustrated, and look at the great work it’s done, particularly in the old days. I know Rick Reilly is no longer with Sports Illustrated, but they allowed him to do that, they allowed him to be serious about Sammy Sosa and to be a fan cheerleading about Lance Armstrong. To me that was just unforgiveable.
AS: In the new book, obviously I haven’t read it, it’s in French, but in one of the articles about it it’s suggested that one of the reasons for his comeback is to help him in a run for the governorship of Texas. Do you really think he’ll go into politics? Can he withstand the dirt digging and oppo research in politics?
DW: Yes, and I really hope he goes into politics. Because I believe there’s a reasonable chance that some of the political investigators will say, "Hold on here, we’re actually going to look back at this guy’s past and we’re going to write some serious pieces." That’s generally what happens when you throw your hat in the political ring.
From way back, when Lance sent his lawyer Timothy Herman to London to settle with the Sunday Times, to effectively make sure the case was never heard in open court, the guy who worked for the Sunday Times and was negotiating for the Sunday Times was the managing editor Richard Caseby. Richard and Timothy Herman sat down and thrashed out an agreement. When the agreement was completed, Herman said to Richard, "This was never going to court."
And Richard said something to the effect of why not? And Herman said, "Lance has long term political ambitions, and this would not have been helpful, going to court and having all this stuff out there."
So that was the first inkling. Then this guy Mark McKinnon, who’s on the LAF board, writing a piece on whatever website he writes on, said that Lance is more likely to end up trying to be a senator rather than governor of Texas. I don’t know the American political system that well, but I think it might make more political sense for him to be a senator than governor of Texas.
Returning to cycling, the comeback’s connected to Lance wanting to change people’s view of how he left the sport. The Tour de France is just down the road. I think if Lance rides a Tour where he’s really competitive, and say Alberto Contador is even better, and Lance ends up riding a race helping Contador to win, I think he would attract a huge wave of sympathy. People would say here’s a great champion coming back and showing his generosity, his selflessness in helping his teammate win.
On the other hand, if Lance was to come back and win the race, if Contador wasn’t as good as he can be, that would be a great story as well. And that’s a damn sight better than the infamous sermon from the pedestal of the Tour de France in Lance’s last Tour.
My memory of that is always…Lance seeing himself as Our Lord on the cross and the two crooks on either side, and the stuff he said then, with a bit of hindsight for everybody, was absolutely absurd. These great men, Ullrich and Basso, heroes, according to Lance. Is somebody trying to tell us that Lance had no idea these guys were doping? It’s funny when you think of it like that.
I think coming back now, there’s a number of reasons for it. I’m sure he was bored with the celebrity life he was living. I’m sure he missed the adrenaline rush of preparing for a big athletic challenge. I’m sure the money he was going to earn was significant. I’m also sure he also wanted a different point of exit from the sport, something better than that infamous sermon from the Tour de France podium.
I think the political thing is very much a possbility at the very least, maybe more than that. Maybe a probability. If a guy like Mark McKinnon, who is clearly a friend, an insider, if McKinnons says it, well, that’s not David Walsh saying it. That’s one of Lance’s closest aides and friends saying it. So I think it’s likely to happen.
AS: In closing, I’ve heard you talk about Shirley Babashoff, and I think it’s a very good viewpoint when people talk about you Lance bashing. It’s the other side of what happens when people dope. Can you talk about that a little?
DW: Yes, I went, in ’99, that was a good year. I must’ve been inspired by what I saw in the Tour de France. I went to California to try to interview Shirley Babashoff, because, to me, she’s one of the greatest athletes that the US has ever produced. She should’ve won six gold medals at the Montreal Olympics, but she was deprived of those by East German cheats.
And when she complained that the people she was competing against were doped, the American media turned on her and called her ‘Surly Shirley’. It was appalling what happened, because it was plain for anyone with eyes to see that the East Germans were systematically doping. They didn’t look like women, they didn’t act like women, and they certainly didn’t swim like women. And Babashoff was this phenomenally talented young woman who went there with this incredible dream to win all these gold medals, and would’ve won them, ’cause she got five silvers, because she was beaten by a different East German every time.
When she told the truth about what was happening, she was laughed at by journalists in the US. I thought it was absolutely appalling, I went to interview her, and she wouldn’t be interviewed. She just did not want to be interviewed. She did not want to revisit this, like somebody who had been in a war, and the war had been vicious, and awful, and dirty, and just did not want to relive it. She did little bits of interviews here and there, she did a Sports Illustrated piece at one time, and she said that when people ask her now if she once swam, she says no. Just says no. Didn’t do it.
And if I could bring in something that’s quite…it’s a big thing to say, but I believe it. I believe professional sport doesn’t work. I believe that the reasons we love sport get undermined when people start doing it for money. I’m talking big money. I don’t think it works for the athletes themselves, who get to their mid 30’s, some of them have earned quite a bit of money, most of them haven’t, but they end up struggling to know what to do with the rest of their lives.
As fans, the reason why we started out loving sport, is generally we played a little ourselves, we liked the selflessness, we liked the sportsmanship, we liked the fact that we could sometimes play a match and lose, and we would think afterwards that it was one of the most enjoyable games we’d played. And the fact that we’d lost had been a relatively minor disappointment. And it didn’t stop us behaving properly or doing the right thing on the pitch, or congratulating our conquerors. And a lot of that stuff has been absolutely destroyed by professional sport.
When we were kids and competed, cheating just wasn’t a part of it in terms of doping, that you would transform yourself into something different. Now, we can’t watch it without considering the possibility, that what we’re watching is not real.
I’m in South Africa now, and South Africa are one of the great rugby countries, they’re currently the world champions. And I went to interview a guy yesterday, he and his brother are South Africa internationals. Two young guys. And they come from a small farming background in very rural eastern Free State, which is one of the provinces of South Africa. And they have a mum who believes that no matter how good you were at sport, it wasn’t right that you should be a professional sportsman.
So these two brothers are professional sportsmen, they get very good contracts to play for their province, which is the Kwa Zulu Natal Sharks. And they play for South Africa, so financially, they do extremely well out of rugby. Their mum insisted that they couldn’t just be professional rugby players, so one of them is a doctor, who worksin a Durban hospital while maintaining his professional rugby career. And the other guy is a broker in a major insurance firm in Durban. They both have genuine and important jobs that run parallel with their rugby careers.
And I met this woman, who decided that their sons would do this, that her sons couldn’t just be rugby players, and I thought it was just the most fantastic thing that a mother could do for her sons, that I’ve virtually ever heard of in my life. It absolutely inspired me, and I thought, yes, there is somebody out there who’s actually prepared to take on this system and do something that I found truly heroic.
This woman, when her son rang her, he was third year in medical school, and he’d been offered a very good contract to play rugby professionally. But the province insisted that he would have to give up his medical degree. He rang his mom and said what should I do?
And she said, "If you’re going to go and play rugby for these guys, you tell them that they owe me this amount of money. This is the amount of money I put into your education since you were six years of age, and I’ve recorded it, it’s all written down. They pay me that bill, you go play rugby, that’s fine. Because I didn’t put all of my money into your education so that you’ll abandon it halfway through your medical degree."
And the son said, "Mum, you’re absolutely right. I’ll finish my degree and we’ll see then." He finished his degree, and now runs his professional rugby career parallel to his very worthy career as a doctor. I just found that…that’s a woman I could genuflect before and say "Well done".